It’s a boy in a dress, he’s making a mess, we gave it a test, were the public impressed?

John Lewis Insurance ads tend to keep out of the headlines – but their latest has sparked a flurry of controversy, and even a statement by the company explaining the ad. If you haven’t seen “Let Life Happen” it features a kid (apparently named Reggie) channeling his inner Rock Diva with the help of his Mum’s dress, his sister’s paints and the track “Edge Of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

The famously free-spirited Nicks would approve – and in fact has approved, on Twitter – of Reggie’s interpretative dance, which wreaks glittery destruction on his very tastefully decorated home. No sooner had the ad launched than the social media takes were flying, culminating in one UK paper calling the commercial “everything that is wrong with modern Britain”.

That’s not something our Test Your Ad scores measure, but what we can see is that “Let Life Happen” is a strongly polarising ad. It landed a 1.6-Star score (Low long-term effectiveness) but an Exceptional Spike score (high short-term impact) – so if its job was to get John Lewis quick attention, it’s worked. But there’s a price to pay in emotional response, with higher than usual levels of Disgust and Contempt for an ad.

We can also see why people were divided about the ad. The commentary online focused on two main areas. First, the kid is astonishingly, wantonly destructive to a level which (people felt) crossed a line between self-expression and plain bad behaviour. Second, he’s wearing a dress and make-up, leading some people to suspect John Lewis is ‘pushing’ an LGBTQ+ agenda.

Twitter takes are not always representative of real life. In the comments in our tests there was only one mention of the dress or make-up, and nobody mentioned LGBT issues or even the dreaded word “woke”. Ordinary viewers are fine with gender non-conformity. What they really cannot tolerate is mess. “Irresponsible”, “Silly”, “Bad behaviour”, “Destructive”… these words and associations kept coming up in the comments and account for why the ad racked up negative responses and performed badly on Star Rating. The positive responses were also consistent – the ad was funny, messy and had a terrific soundtrack.

There’s a long tradition of insurance ads showing the worst case scenarios they want people to insure against. There’s a reason, for instance, that AllState’s long-running fluent device character is called “Mayhem”. So what went wrong with John Lewis here? Two things. First, having the destruction happen inside the house, caused by a child, touches a lot of British nerves about tidiness, property and parenting. As a nation we apparently love to disapprove of one another’s activities in those areas, and John Lewis is handing us a golden opportunity.

Second, though, is the addition of other family members. The negative emotion starts to rise when the boy’s sister and mother appear – in particular when the sister gets her paints hijacked. This undermines the whole “free expression” vibe of the ad, being an unwelcome reminder that Reggie’s actions are going to disrupt the rest of his family’s day. It makes him look adversarial and shifts the ad out of the realm of fantasy and into the realm of family. If the commercial had been a solo turn by Reggie, it might not have been so polarising.

But then, polarising is most likely what “Let Life Happen” was aiming for. In his new book, Look Out, Orlando Wood charts the rise of shock-tactic advertising, ads which want to be noticed and talked about rather than entertain or deepen people’s liking for a brand. He compares those ads to the fiercely polarised audience reaction to Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring, when the wild music, costumes and dancing caused a near-riot on the ballet’s opening night.

Shock-tactic ads achieve their aim, but don’t necessarily do much for their brand (and, says Wood, risk widening, not closing, divides in society as a whole).. It’s hard not to look at Reggie’s chaotic, joyfully destructive dancing and think this is what we’re seeing. If the world of home insurance ads has a Rite Of Spring, this might well be it.

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